Today those of us in the United States mark Veterans’ Day, and in the UK the cousins pause for two minutes and reflect on Remembrance Day, with further tributes to come this Sunday. With the passage of time, perhaps we sometimes forget those occasions when our two countries were tied together by acts of mutual support. Yet if you happen to visit a little island off the coast of The Carolinas, you may be surprised to learn that not only are you stepping on British soil, but you will also be seeing an example of both the heroism of the British armed forces, and the respect of both the American armed forces and the American people for their valorous efforts to try to protect our coastline.
Back in the spring of 1942, America was still not quite ready for World War II. She had only entered the war the preceding December, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and was still building up her war machine. The Germans took advantage of the situation to send over U-Boats to American waters, in order to sink vessels up and down the East Coast of the United States, which they succeeded in doing with impunity for months. The British in turn sent ships to try to assist our forces in tracking down and destroying the German fleet, and one of these ships was HMT Bedfordshire, a vessel designed to trawl for German submarines.
On May 10, 1942, there were reports that a U-Boat was harboring somewhere around Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, and so The Bedfordshire and another British submarine trawler were sent out to look for it. That evening they came across the U-Boat, which fired a torpedo at the other British vessel and missed, but the following morning the Germans torpedoed The Bedfordshire. The vessel sank quickly, and all 37 men aboard were lost. Eventually, four of the bodies of the men washed up on Ocracoke Island, where they were buried together in a plot of land next to the island cemetery.
The land where they were buried has come to be called “The British Cemetery”. It was leased by the people of Ocracoke to the British Crown in perpetuity, for however long the British Commonwealth Graves Commission chooses to use the land for a cemetery. Because it is British territory, and a gravesite for British naval personnel, the British Ensign flies at the spot at all times.
Yet interestingly enough, even though the cemetery is technically British, it is cared for by the Coast Guard officers on the island, as well as by the civilian residents of Ocracoke itself. A ceremony is held every May 11th by residents of the island to mark the sacrifice of these British men to try to keep American waters, ships, and lives safe from attacks by Nazi submarines. It is one of a small handful of such sites located in this country where the United States publicly recognizes the efforts of our long-standing ally to help protect and defend our people.
When we talk about the “special relationship” between the Americans and the British, that relationship may be handled – or these days, mangled – by the media and politicians in various ways. Stories like this, and no doubt comparable stories from the other side of the pond about Americans who tried to help the British people, bring home to us the fact that we respect each other, and that we have each other’s back, as the saying goes. Let us hope that our common sense of decency and self-sacrifice may long continue to cement our kinship.